We went to this dinner in the middle of the week, and I didn’t know what to expect. I mean we knew the hosts — good friends with amazing energy, a love for company and a desire to see, explore and learn new things — and I expected an intimate evening for four with a lot of interesting and very personal, perhaps amusing stories. Our friends had just returned from a car trip to New England and Canada — I think Toronto — and I had been to my 50th high school reunion — which to me had been a big deal — and I thought travel talk was on the agenda, plus a tasty meal with farmer’s market ingredients, masterfully prepped by Debbie, who is a professional chef, and sprinkled with single malts and well matched wines by Michael, who knows his drinks, his music, and how to tell a story.
But no, when we arrived, we found out it was a dinner for ten. Impromptu! A Wednesday party on the spur of the moment!
The table in their dining room was nicely set, the main courses were simmering on the stove, the appetizers looked like a full meal, and the bottles were lined up on top of the whiskey cabinet and the kitchen counter. I took my introductory shot of some hard liquor — I have a terrible memory — and grabbed a seat on the enclosed porch overlooking a recently whittled down garden. ‘We travel too much to be able to tend to it,’ Michael said with a smile on his face that gently implied that life had pluses and minuses. Then I greeted the other guests — six people I had not met before, six names I tried to remember. Well, I have to confess I am not good with names and with faces either. In other words, chances are that if I met you one time and ran into you again, I won’t know who you are. But to compensate, I have other strong qualities.
So, I sat on my veranda chair, and in front of me was a low coffee table, which got arrayed with the colorful Italian appetizers I had seen a few moments earlier in the kitchen. The good thing was that I had to bend forward to load my small plate and then balance it with one hand, while holding the fork and the drink with the other. This small challenge slowed me down and this turned out to be beneficial since I didn’t manage to stuff myself from the very beginning. In front of me, on the other side of the coffee table, sat a woman about my age, I thought, of medium height and gray hair, whose name I promptly forgot and who had arrived with her husband a few minutes after us at the party. Her husband was sitting next to her. I learned that they had spent a number of years in Uganda. As expected, I know less about Uganda than I know about Toronto. I asked them about what I knew — the children who needed help in Uganda, and Idi Amin Dada with the big crocodiles (I remembered the movie I had seen about him in the late seventies). They told us that while in Kampala, they lived in a sort of compound or an enclosed zone that was safe for Westerners and their residence had all the amenities typical of a Western home with a garden. I didn’t ask what they did in Uganda, but later on, during dinner, it became clear that they had been in Africa on a humanitarian mission.
It was there, at the beautiful dining table, over lush salads, fresh breads, pasta dishes and Italian wine that she said she had just taken a new consulting assignment in a war torn African nation. At the same time, her husband was going to continue his work in the Caribbean. Somebody at the table noted how terrified they’d be to go to work in a war zone and she snickered nervously and responded she would be getting x percentage over the going rate as hazard pay, on a tone that indicated clearly that she didn’t care about the money. ‘But don’t worry,’ she added quickly. ‘It’s a short assignment supposed to be done by August. I’ll go for two weeks at a time, with breaks in between, and each time I’ll be met at the airport by our people and escorted to one of the safe houses in the area.’ Then she said she would never go out alone. War victims, especially women, would be brought to her for interviews so she could recommend efficient ways of getting involved and implementing aid programs. ‘Women and children are most often the victims, and I specialize in women’s issues,’ she clarified for her mildly stunned audience.
Then she continued outlining for us her next two trips this summer. The first was to Vietnam, in conjunction with a program to clean up several areas severely contaminated with Dioxin (Agent Orange) dumped during the war in the sixties. ‘The agent stays in the soil and water for ages,’ she told us, ‘and affects most of all the unborn, pregnant women and the women who are nursing. It affects men, too, but I go there for the women.’ Clearly, she had her focus. The other assignment was to a Muslim Middle-Eastern country. ‘Actually it is not so bad over there, and in many ways women have it better than in the United States,’ she said.
I could only imagine what a paper about ‘how I spent my summer’ would read. Her courage and determination were nothing short of amazing.
‘Wow, this is inspiring,’ my wife, who was sitting to my right said eagerly. ‘Why doesn’t our government do more for women in this country?’
My wife’s question went unanswered, and we moved on to desserts and cordials. At some point I managed to ask the husband why they had chosen those career paths and his simple answer, as I expected, was that they liked to help people.
It was later in the car on our drive home that my wife said, ‘Don’t imagine even for a second that the US government gets involved with all these projects only for charitable reasons. It’s all about gaining influence in the world and an economic advantage.’
‘Maybe, but it’s still a beautiful cause, and this woman is very courageous,’ I answered. ‘She is, no doubt about it,’ my wife said. ‘Let me make it more personal for you. May I?’ ‘Of course you may,’ I responded tentatively and switching lanes to pass a slower moving vehicle.‘Last year, our daughter had to go back to work with a three months old baby at home and we went to Colorado to babysit. They couldn’t afford daycare. Well, that’s a woman’s issue.’
‘It is,’ I said and added that there was a lot of debate currently in the public arena on that topic. I also recalled what my friend who lives in Germany had told me. Not only had his daughter received paid maternity leave for a year after delivery, but her husband had stayed at home for three months as well, plus they went with the baby on a month long holiday, paid by the government, to a place of their choosing. ‘To allow the young parents time to get acquainted with their infant,’ my friend had told me.
My wife continued. ‘How many women have to choose between their careers and child rearing, and isn’t this a relevant women’s issue? Shouldn’t we address this first, and spend our tax dollars for projects in Africa later?’
‘We are the wealthiest country in the world, and we can have the cake and eat it, too,’ I mumbled expecting a complete coup de grace coming my way, although I wasn’t the enemy.
But my wife mellowed. ‘How about our aging parents?’ she asked softly. ‘As they grow weaker and become physically and mentally disabled, if there is no money for a decent retirement home, who takes care of them, if not the women?’
She was right, of course, and I again thought of another close friend of ours who lives in Denmark in a retirement home, free of charge, after a stroke had affected her mobility.
Yes, it had been an unexpected, interesting evening, and it managed to get very personal.
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